How Memphis Is Listening to Teachers
Teaching in Memphis, a predominately urban and low-income district, can be challenging, especially at my school that transitions incarcerated and expelled students back to their home schools. However, one thing that I can say the district is doing well is listening to teachers. That is, if teachers want to be heard. In the past three years, Memphis City Schools' administration has welcomed multiple avenues of teacher voice. This does not always bring about the desired change, but teachers in Memphis can see that the district is listening to our views.
Topping the charts for teacher voice opportunities are surveys and teacher and community forums. Routinely teachers are surveyed about topics ranging from professional development to compensation plans to building procedures. Sometimes surveys even come with incentives to foster more participation. In professional development meetings and district email notifications, survey results are often mentioned as a catalyst for decision making.
In addition to surveying teachers, the district has formed several focus groups to offer feedback on new district initiatives. The most prominent topic addressed by these groups is the teacher-evaluation system and the use of student-achievement data. While some groups are selective, most are advertised through email or building administrators, ensuring open opportunities for interested teachers.
Over the past two years, one selective program, the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI) Ambassador Program, has become the strongest district-organized group for teacher voice on evaluation reform. Principals select one or more teachers to represent their building in monthly meetings and professional development sessions. These teachers learn about new programs or policies related to the TEI, share them with their schools, and return with feedback that goes directly back to the district. A recent change impelled by the Ambassadors' feedback was to modify the length and wording of the TRIPOD student survey used in teacher evaluations.
Because teacher voice is so important to me, I have participated in all of the above avenues. I have completed surveys created at the local and state level, one of which was a factor in my own principal's evaluation. These surveys have also been helpful in changing routine things such as professional development styles and times, school start times, uniforms, and teacher recognition. As a TEI Ambassador for one year, my voice was also heard as a liaison between my school and district, especially in providing media resources and TRIPOD survey feedback. For more personal input, I have also joined teacher panels and focus groups regarding teacher compensation and the roll-out of the Common Core State Standards. Recently an invitation to the University of Memphis to discuss professional development needs for teachers showed me how influential teacher voice can be, as this helped create a partnership to improve teacher preparation and development.
There are multiple opportunities for teachers to add their support to the multitude or represent educators as an individual and powerful voice. People are listening, but we have to desire to be heard.
Casie Jones is an English teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Student Transition Academy in Memphis. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow and a common core coach for Tennessee.